We hear the same story over and over again. Orchestras and opera houses are closing.
Profits are diminishing. Audiences are growing older and their numbers declining. This
must mean classical music is dying.
Let’s take a moment and consider this gloomy scenario.
Can we really picture a world in
which nobody ever wants to hear Beethoven, Chopin or Verdi anymore? What kind of
zombie apocalypse would it take for us to forget about Mozart?
It seems quite blown up to talk about demise in an industry where tickets cost up to a few
hundred dollars, and top artists are paid in tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars
per concert. Nevertheless; many concert presenters and record producers are lucky if they
break even. Concert halls are emptier and emptier. Most of the non-superstar musicians
often rely on other sources of income and eventually change careers. Where lies the
A partial answer may be found in this famous experiment
with Joshua Bell performing
undercover in Washington D.C. metro station. Except for a handful aficionados who
stopped by to listen, over a thousand commuters passed by without even noticing the
renowned player and the magnificent music he played.
Maybe they did not recognize the music? They were probably simply in a rush. They could
never have expected a gem like Bach’s Chaconne in a subway stop! But didn’t they realize
how well it was played? Or maybe they never heard the Chaconne played badly in the first
I believe most of the people today are simply not attuned to great music and what it can do
for them. It’s just not on their radar. This may be because of scant funding for arts
education, or because of underrepresentation of classical music in the media. But most
importantly I believe it’s because there’s a kind of quiet and disengaged miscommunication
going on between the musicians and the audience.
If you are a musician, try to put yourself in your listener’s shoes. Imagine you are someone
who has taken a year or two of piano lessons as a kid and goes to one or two classical
concerts per year. You are forced to sit quietly for more than an hour and wait while the
performers do their thing on a far away stage. Then you leave with a sense of emptiness at
best, or inferiority at worst. What you have just experienced seemed brilliant and difficult,
at times pleasant, but somewhat puzzling. You’ve paid a lot of money for it, so it must have
been really good! – but why?
It seems as if there is an air of mystery shrouding the performance of classical music.
Performers perpetuate it as it makes them look spectacular, and listeners buy it easily
because they can’t do it themselves. This is not to say there is no magic in music – on the
contrary, music is probably the most enigmatic human activity. Its magic just resides on a
deeper, more mysterious level than most people realize. And the way concerts are
presented today is not helping.
I admit: I can’t help feeling that classical music is already in many ways the art of the past.
The rules and regulations of tonal music belong to a world of monarchs and court
musicians, romantic heroes and idealistic worldviews. It is the music from a world without
movie theaters, radio, or TV, not to mention YouTube. Push a couple of piano keys and you
get only a couple of sounds. Do a quick Google search and you get millions of words,
pictures, and flashy videos. At a glance, classical music just doesn’t compare, even if we all
agree there is universal beauty in it.
That’s why we can’t just give it a glance. We need to go deeper and converse with our
audience. Allow them to speak and ask us questions. Even ask them questions! Don’t give
them finished answers! You’d be surprised at what kinds of interesting thoughts they will
share – ranging from silly to brilliant. The times are over when musicians could just walk
up on stage, perform, and leave. Even giving a lecture-recital is a thing of the past because it
serves to further separate the “erudite” musician from the “commoners” in the audience.
Enough with the presumptuous elevation of the musician above the audience, or even
worse, above the music! Talent is overrated! And yes, even if we musicians are admirable
because we spend hours and hours painstakingly learning difficult pieces and perfecting
our technique, in the end we are here to do a service – to do service to the music which
cannot exist without us, and a service to the listeners who don’t have the time, expertise, or
privilege to be able to do what we do.
And yes, I agree that music speaks for itself. In an ideal world. But in today’s world, we
need to engage the audience thoughtfully. The Joshua Bell experiment ultimately failed,
because it was set out to place great music in an environment which was not conducive to
it. We need to place music back into smaller, intimate salons where it belongs, and where a
dialogue can be established. A dialogue between equals in search of a common answer to
the question: Why do we still play and listen to this marvelous music that has been written
The Croatian pianist Javor Bracic is the first prize winner of international piano competitions in Italy,
Croatia and Belgium. He gave a critically acclaimed solo recital at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall
presented by New York Concert Artists. His first CD album Tribute to Haydn was released by Labor
Records, and his performance was broadcast on WQXR. He was invited to give recitals and perform at
festivals and conferences throughout the USA, Europe, China, and South Africa.
Javor has given a series of concerts for the humanitarian organization "Yehudi Menuhin's Live Music
Now" which brings music to nursing homes and hospitals. He has also given a series of conversation-
recitals under the title the Art of Listening aimed at promoting the interest in and understanding of
Javor has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from the University of Mozarteum in Salzburg, as well as a
Professional Studies Diploma from Mannes College in New York. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate of
Musical Arts at the City University of New York, studying with Ursula Oppens and Richard Goode.